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When You Squint, Everything Shines

The hypnotic ecstasy and brutal reality of the dissonance-inducing Rio Olympic Games

Getty Images
Getty Images

Brazilian pole vaulter Thiago Braz da Silva’s gold medal winning vault was magnificent and bonkers. For starters, it was wild that the 22-year-old had even made it that far: Last year, at the World Championships, he came in 19th. But there he was, on a rain-delayed and glittering Monday night, going head-to-head with reigning Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie, a cocksure Frenchman with a tendency to fist-pump mid-air. Braz da Silva had never recorded a height above six meters in competition, and failed on his first attempt at 6.03m. On his second, though, he cleared the bar with room to spare.

The people inside Olympic Stadium lost their minds. When Lavillenie missed his next jump and Braz da Silva secured the gold, they all lived the spectator’s dream: Here was a beautiful young Brazilian winning the country’s second gold medal of the Games (there have been three more golds since) in dramatic fashion on one of Rio’s grandest stages. It was the kind of performance that has a way of weaving its way into the national consciousness and becoming iconic. It was the kind of performance that is the general argument for why the Olympics exist.

Despite all the merriness and all the music — Braz da Silva later said that hearing a popular Brazilian song over the loudspeakers during the competition gave him an adrenaline rush — not everything would result in celebration. Lavillenie, incensed that the crowd had booed his attempts and cheered his misses in addition to supporting Braz da Silva, likened the treatment he got to Berlin’s reception of Jesse Owens in 1936, a comparison that hogged headlines. At the medal ceremony the following night, Lavillenie was razzed so lustily that he wound up in tears. IOC president Thomas Bach scolded the locals with phrases like “shocking behavior” and “unacceptable at the Olympics.” But for however vocal the fans were, they weren’t actually there in great volume: As many people pointed out, the Olympic Stadium looked, as it has all week, only about a quarter full.

And so it goes. For all the proud steps forward throughout the Rio Olympics — and there have been so many — there have also been many hasty retreats. For every performance of a lifetime, there has been a life disrupted. Headlines about world records sit alongside headlines about arrested IOC members. (The biggest headlines, of course, are the ones involving clown noses, public urination, French nightclubs, drawn weapons, Billy Bush, and mo-om!)

Attendance has been exasperatingly low and money management has been a disaster: It’s currently unclear exactly how or where the organizers for the Paralympics, which begin September 7, will find cash. In the seven years since Brazil was awarded the 2016 Summer Games there have been bodies floating in venues, a national constitutional crisis, three other Olympics, and the rise of the Zika virus. There have also been countless stories of athletes from all corners of the world realizing dreams, winning medals, and helping each other up. The Rio Games have been neither as disastrous as feared nor as epic as planned. And when they come to an end this weekend, very little about the glories, tragedies, and general dissonance of the Olympics will have changed.

What will be the lasting memories from Rio? There’s Michael Phelps perching victoriously on a lane-line after the 200 fly, making former lifeguards everywhere wince, but then there’s Ryan Lochte’s alleged ass on a gas station security cam after hours. There’s Usain Bolt somehow imbuing a 10-second, 100-meter dash with the drama of a full playoff series (in which he’d be the team down 2–0 who cruised back to win in six), and then there’s the needless debate over whether Shaunae Miller dove or tripped to win the women’s 400.

German officials nearly bit off the heads of two of their athletes, twin sisters, who made the terrible mistake of crossing the marathon finish line beaming and holding hands. The joy of watching Simone Biles live up to the hype was accompanied by the discomfort of seeing Gabby Douglas brought down by the hate. The fun finish of the first Olympic golf tournament was tempered by the alarming backstory of the pricey new course. It was hard not to obsess over, say, synchronized diving, the epitome of the random, niche-y mystery of the Games. (Seriously, how do they do that?!) It was just as hard, though, not to fixate on the unexplained greenish murk of their world-class workspace.

The Olympic movement has long been plagued by inherent tensions: between the theoretical purity of competition and the tarnished reality; between a host country’s photogenic beauty and the ugliness that lies just outside the frame; between the athletes’ authentic charm and the manufactured veneer of the spectacle they create. But in much the same way increased coverage of the long-term effects of concussions has made big fights in hockey and brutal collisions in football tougher to watch, the sheer amount of information that’s been put out there on the more troubling aspects of the Olympics has grown difficult to overlook.

A Real Sports investigation that premiered weeks before the Olympics uncovered case after case of IOC greed and mismanagement, not just in Rio but in the many cities that have hosted over the years. A recent FiveThirtyEight study explained just what a tricky investment an Olympics is. There have been calls to allow a consortium of countries to host, or to rotate among a handful of semi-permanent locations. After Sochi’s infamous highway that cost more than $9 billion, there was such meager interest in hosting the 2022 Winter Games — Norway was among the countries that pulled their bids from contention — that they ultimately were awarded to … Beijing? When Boston was tapped as the official US candidate for the 2024 Summer Games, protesters were so organized and so thoroughly convincing that the USOC ultimately backtracked on the decision. (The US bid instead will come from Los Angeles, where many of the facilities from the 1984 Olympics remain. The IOC will name the winner in September of 2017.)

And still, still, the power of the Olympics can be inescapable, the mix of esoteric athleticism and jingoistic nonsense intoxicating. Some athletes are inspirational, their stories weepworthy; others are admirable because they’re so unapologetically themselves. (It takes a good level of self-possession to devote your life to the uneven bars or the discus throw.) The Olympics are funny and fun. And, crucially, communal: The beauty of accidentally getting hooked on a super-heavyweight women’s weightlifting competition or a slalom kayak race is going online to find that someone has already captured and disseminated the key GIFs. I say this with the utmost sincerity.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post wrote a profile on Mario Andrada, the official Rio 2016 spokesman who has become an avatar for these Olympic Games. His various comments have had a way of going viral; English is his second language, in fairness, but he’s still the guy who said, of the green pool water, “chemistry is not an exact science,” and who referred to the 32-year-old Lochte and his friends as “kids” who should be given a break. “They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on,” Andrada said. There’s a sense from the Post piece that Andrada, an affable former Nike communications officer, didn’t quite grasp what he was getting into when he took such a demanding position. (His job is kind of like being a goalie — alternately really mundane and totally nuts.) But it also quotes him as saying he has zero regrets — about the position, or about his native country opening its arms to the snarling beast that is the Olympic Games. “Sometimes,” he remarked to the Post, “a bronze looks like a gold, and you celebrate the achievements of a nation.”

And that’s the thing: When you squint, everything shines. (OK, other than that janky water.) Biles, Phelps, and Bolt reminded the world that they are generational talents we are blessed to have had in our lives. British brothers finished first and second in the men’s triathlon, then sprawled down next to one another to catch their breath and celebrate. NBA players revealed themselves to be gleeful, dorky superfans (and/or emo lone wolves.) A dressage horse named Lorenzo pranced to an instrumental remix of Santana and Rob Thomas’s “Smooth.” A 41-year-old Uzbek gymnast not only competed in her seventh Olympics, but made it to the vault final. Those with no country found a temporary home. And on a rainy Thursday night, in Rio’s most spectacular venue, the home team brought home beach volleyball gold.

Reality will set in soon enough. As of now, only 12 percent of Paralympics tickets have even been sold. Journalists who devoted their time and resources to doggedly bringing to light Brazil’s systemic issues, Olympics-related and otherwise, will move on to the next project. If they return, it will be to take grim photo essays of massive arenas that sit mostly unused. Athletes will juggle second jobs to scrape money together for their thankless, endless training. (Fans will swear that this time they’re going to pay better attention to these sports between Olympics, but then they’ll get distracted by the NFL.) The IOC will choose a host country for 2024, and around the same time there will be reports of something or other that is distressingly not on track or budget for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. These reports will probably be overblown, but it will be hard to know. These are all predictable parts of the quadrennial cycle, as sure as the medals and the Visa commercials and the Closing Ceremony.

On Sunday night, the Games will end and the Olympic torch will be ceremonially passed on to the next summer host, Tokyo in 2020. There will be smiles and samba. The real show, however, will take place a couple of hours before, when the sun sets over the crisp shores and mossy mountains of beautiful, complicated Rio. When it does, for just a few peaceful minutes, everything will look like gold.